Why Central Austinites Should Support Toll Roads

Excerpted from a discussion on the austin-bikes email list, where one of my self-appointed burdens is to be the voice of reason towards those who live in the center-city echo chamber (where everybody bikes; where nobody wants sprawling highways; etc).

The last paragraph of my response is the most relevant piece, and the one that the person I was responding to and many other wishful thinkers just don’t get. I, thanks to moving here with suburbanites, and working with exclusively suburbanites, have learned the following painful truths:

  • There are more suburbanites around here than urbanites. A LOT more. And the most recent election, they finally WON a seat in our city council (McCracken over Clarke) DESPITE much higher turnout in the center-city.
  • Outside Austin, there are no urbanites. CAMPO is now 2/3 suburban, for instance.
  • Suburbanites cannot conceive of any lifestyle other than the suburban one. Really. I get blank stares when I tell them I rode the bus to work today, or when I say I walked to the store.
  • The sheer population and geographical coverage of suburban neighborhoods means that even if gas gets really expensive, they’re still going to be living there. Resistance to their redevelopment in ways which aren’t so car-dependent and the cost of such modifications means we’re stuck with what we have now for at least a few more decades. Yes, even at $5.00/gallon.

Here’s the thread:

Roger Baker wrote:
> On Mar 4, 2005, at 9:34 AM, Mike Dahmus wrote:
>
>     Roger Baker wrote:
>
>         McCracken is the immediate hero here, but he likely wouldn't
>         have done it without Sal Costello, SOSA, and all the
>         independent grassroots organizing.
>
>         On CAMPO, McCracken's resolution got defeated about 2 to 1,
>         with Gerald Daugherty on the bad side, along with CAMPO
>         Director Aulick. TxDOT's Bob Daigh deserves a special bad
>         actor award for expressing his opinion just before the CAMPO
>         vote, with no reasons given, that any independent study of the
>         CAMPO plan would be likely to threaten TxDOT funding for our
>         area. -- Roger
>
>
>     Just like the transit people in Austin with Mike Krusee, you've
>     been completely snookered if you think these people are your friends.
>     The goal of McCracken et al is NOT to stop building these roads;
>     it is to build these roads quickly as FREE HIGHWAYS.
>     In other words, McCracken and Costello ___ARE___ THE ROAD LOBBY!
>     Keep that in mind, folks. Slusher and Bill Bunch don't want the
>     roads at all, but pretty much everybody else who voted against the
>     toll plan wants to build them as free roads.
>     And these highways built free is a far worse prospect for Austin
>     and especially central Austin than if they're built as toll roads,
>     in every possible respect.
>     - MD
>
>
> All that is easy for Mike to say but, as usual, lacks any factual basis or
> documentation. Furthermore, he does not appear to read what I have previously
> documented.

(my response):

As for factual basis or documentation, it should be obvious to anybody with the awareness of a three-year-old that McCracken’s playing to his suburban constituents who WANT THESE ROADS, AND WANT THEM TO BE FREE, rather than Slusher’s environmentalist constituents, who don’t want the roads at all.

As for reading what you’ve previously documented; oh, if only it were true. If only I hadn’t wasted a good month of my life reading your repeated screeds about the oil peak which have almost convinced me to go out and buy an SUV just to spite you.

POLITICAL REALITY MATTERS. The suburban voters who won McCracken his seat over Margot Clarke WANT THESE HIGHWAYS TO BE BUILT. AND THEY DON’T WANT THEM BUILT AS TOLL ROADS BECAUSE THEY’LL HAVE TO PAY (MORE) OF THE BILL IF THEY DO.

Here’s what’s going to happen if Roger’s ilk convinces the environmental bloc to continue their unholy alliance with the suburban road warriors like McCracken and Daugherty:

  1. We tell TXDOT we don’t want toll roads.
  2. TXDOT says we need to kick in a bunch more money to get them built free.
  3. We float another huge local bond package to do it (just like we did for local ‘contributions’ for SH 45, SH 130, and US 183A).
  4. The roads get built, as free highways.
  5. Those bonds are paid back by property and sales taxes, which disproportionately hit central Austinites, and especially penalize people who don’t or only infrequently drive.

Here’s what’s going to happen if the toll roads get built, as toll roads:

  1. TXDOT builds them.
  2. The current demand for the roadway is large enough to fill the coffers enough to keep the enterprise going without the bonds defaulting.
  3. (Even if #2 doesn’t happen, we’re at worst no worse off than above; with the added bonus that suburbanites still get to finally pay user fees for their trips on the roads).

Here’s what’s going to happen in Roger Fantasyland:

  1. McCracken, Gerald Daugherty, et al have a Come To Jesus moment and decide that we Really Don’t Need Any More Highways In The ‘Burbs.

Now, be honest. Which one of the three scenarios above do you find least likely?

YES, EVEN IF GAS TRIPLES IN PRICE, SUBURBANITES WILL STILL DRIVE. THE OIL PEAK IN THIS SENSE DOESN’T ****MATTER****. The people out there in Circle C aren’t going anywhere in the short term, and it’ll be decades before their neighborhoods are redeveloped in a less car-dependent fashion, assuming we can afford to.

Rapid Bus Ain’t Rapid

Earlier this week, Capital Metro included a flyer in copies of the local newspaper which touted Rapid Bus down Lamar/Guadalupe, opening late 2006 or early 2007.
Coincidentally, Wednesday night I had to drop my wife off and pick her up at an appointment which allowed me to travel down Guadalupe from 30th to 6th streets at the extreme tail end of rush hour (6:40 PM). I paid special attention to the ability of cars and buses to navigate through this congested corridor.

First: a short re-hash of what Rapid Bus is:

  • Rapid Bus is not “bus rapid transit”. “bus rapid transit” or BRT in short picks from a set of items off a menu which will supposedly improve the speed, reliability, and attractiveness of bus transit. The hopes are that it will bring bus transit up to the level of a good urban rail line. In practice (in the United States), this has been far from the case – mainly due to the reluctance to set aside dedicated right-of-way for the bus vehicle, which results in poor speed and reliability compared to rail (and poor relative performance compared to the private automobile). Even when bus lanes are created, the fact that they are typically in-street makes them worthless in practice since cars just use them anyways.
  • Capital Metro is certainly moving towards BRT with this line, but even they admit that it’s not good enough to call it BRT yet. (That’s even with the slip-shod definition of BRT which allows for it to be declared even with only a few improvements over normal bus service).
  • In fact, both the existing express buses (which travel down US 183, Mopac, and I-35) and limited buses (which run down normal corridors with fewer stops) already implement some features of BRT. (fewer stops and improved vehicles).

So what characteristics of BRT is Capital Metro including in the design of this new service to make it “Rapid”?

  • Signal prioritization – i.e. the ability to hold traffic signals green for a few seconds as the bus approaches
  • Off-bus fare payment
  • Longer (probably articulated) buses
  • Fewer stops

That’s pretty much it. Items that might help make the service more like a light rail line which are not being included:

  • Dedicated right-of-way
  • Full control over traffic signals – i.e. lights turn green when the vehicle approaches
  • Electic power (overhead “caternary” wires or in-street power)

So how does “Rapid Bus” look to improve service along Lamar/Guadalupe? Like I said, I drove the most congested part of the route just yesterday, and it doesn’t look good.

  • The ability to hold the next light green for 5 or 10 seconds isn’t going to help during rush hour at all! At almost every single intersection with a traffic light, I waited through at least one green cycle before being able to proceed, since traffic was always backed up from further down the road. And this was at 6:40 PM! That means that while the bus can hold the signal at 27th green for a while longer, it doesn’t matter because the backup from 26th, 24th, 23rd, 22nd, 21st, and MLK is preventing the bus from moving anyways.
  • Off-bus payment is going to be irrelevant. Now that Capital Metro is using SmartCards for everything short of single-fare rides, very few people are having to take more than a second to pay when they get on the bus (this is from my own bus rides on the 983 and 3 lately). Basically, paying is no longer slowing the boarding process.
  • Fewer stops is already possible with the #101. This bus is still woefully slow and woefully unreliable compared to the private automobile, to say nothing of quality rail service (which could in fact beat the automobile on both counts).
  • The ride is going to be uncomfortable. The pavement along Guadalupe simply can’t stand the beating it gets from heavy vehicles like buses and trucks – and this is not going to change anytime soon. Rather than running down the middle of the street on rails (as light-rail would have done), the Rapid Bus vehicle will run in the right lane of the street on the same pavement abused by trucks and other buses. There is no evidence that the city is willing to pay the far higher bills required to keep this pavement in smooth-enough condition to provide a decent comfortable bus ride.

In review: The commuter rail line is being built on a corridor where only a handful of Austin residents can walk to stations, and only a small percentage of Austin residents can drive to a station. The primary beneficiaries, assuming shuttle buses don’t just kill the whole thing, are residents of Leander (who at least pay Capital Metro taxes) and Cedar Park (who don’t). On the other hand, the thousands of people in central Austin who could walk to stations along the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor are being presented with a rank steaming turd which barely improves service over the existing #101 bus.
(publically opposing this Mike-Krusee-designed Austin-screwing debacle is the basic reason I was booted from the UTC, for those arriving late).

So, shut up and take it, Austin. Rapid Bus is all you’re getting, and you’d better ride it, or you’ll be experiencing the fun that Honolulu is currently going through with their own BRT debacle. Big ugly long buses that aren’t attracting any new riders don’t do transit users any favors.

References:

New Shoal Creek Report #1

I’m going to try to bike home on Shoal Creek (at least from Anderson to 41st) once a month or so to track the results of the debacle. I plan on executing a polite but firm passing manuever out of the “shared lane” whenever passing a parked car, since there is insufficient space to safely pass a parked car in the space provided (even if you know ahead of time that the vehicle is empty). This passing manuever is likely to generate conflict with through motorists (“conflict” in this sense not meaning emotional or physical but simply that the through motorist behind me will have to slow down and wait for me to pass – although on many occasions on the pre-striped street, the motorist did in fact get angry enough to honk or swerve).

I made my first trip (post-stripe) yesterday (Monday).

The striping is done, but the islands are just getting started – post holes have been cut, and some markings made, but that’s it.

First impressions:

  • When no cars are parked, this lane is really wide. Wider than the usable shoulder on Loop 360.
  • Cars are going to try to use this as a lane, at least the way it’s striped now. When you’re turning onto Shoal Creek, it’s not altogether clear where you should go.
  • Few parking conflicts so far; most of the vehicles that were parked Monday night were parked on the northbound side. I passed four or five parked vehicles on my stretch, and only once did my passing manuever cause a conflict with a through motorist (and this one was polite).
  • When a small car is parked near the curb, there is enough room to pass in the lane, if I could be 100% positive that the car was unoccupied. However, with larger vehicles (SUVs/trucks) this is not true. Also, one of the two cars was parked far enough away from the curb (you get up to 18 inches legally) that it might as well have been a fire engine.

Verdict so far: Not enough data. Far more vehicles were parked northbound; I don’t know why southbound was so comparatively empty yesterday. (Perhaps this side was striped last?).

Capital Metro, Empty Buses, and Farebox Recovery Ratio

The local asshats are at it again, slamming Capital Metro for supposedly running empty buses.
See here and here and here for reasons why suburbanites always think buses are empty (they’re wrong – most Capital Metro buses are carrying a substantial number of passengers).

As regards farebox recovery (in short, the amount of cost covered by passenger fare), the asshats are ‘right’ – Capital Metro’s number is low. As I used to keep telling them when they’d come for their quarterly report to our commission, if you run programs like the free rides on Ozone Action Days and the free rides for UT students at night (E-bus) and don’t account for them separately, you leave yourself open for getting hammered on an extremely low farebox recovery ratio. And by “account for them separately” I don’t mean “after the local libertarians get the media to claim you’re wasting your money”; I mean “go as far as transferring 10% of your funds to the Clean Air Force and them have them contract with you for the Ozone Action Day rides just like you do with UT for the UT Shuttle”.

Of course they didn’t listen. Capital Metro operates in the same center-city echo-chamber that most of the bicycle advocates I work with live in. My role on the UTC, while it lasted, was largely an effort to smash out of that box and get them to realize that there’s a world out there past the intersection of 183 and Mopac, and it’s got more voters in it every day.

By the way, the “farebox recovery ratio” for the private automobile is about as low as Capital Metro’s artificially low number given above. As the last few days have hopefully shown, especially as you get close to the center-city, most major roads aren’t paid for out of the gas tax (or tolls) – they’re paid for with bonds which have to be floated every few years by the city and county and are repaid with property and sales taxes. Ironically, much of the strongest opposition to the local toll road plan comes from the same group hammering Capital Metro here. Guess what, folks? A toll paid when you drive on a particular road brings you UP to the level that the transit passenger is ALREADY AT. Gas taxes don’t even come close to paying your bills.

The “Exit Test”: Suburb vs. City: Major Roads, from I-35

The “Exit Test”:

Another way to show the discrepancy in road funding in our area is to look at freeway intersections. (In this case, our definition of “major road” is a road which is mentioned in a marked exit from the freeway – in some places due to the frontage-road-centric design of highways here, multiple major roads have the same exit).

Using a current list of exits, let’s look at Round Rock through Austin. To make things even more fair for the suburbanites, and not coincidentally to make it simpler for my transcription, I’m only going to use the part of Austin north of the upper/lower-deck split (which leaves out the densest part of Austin where 100% of the exits are for locally-funded roadways).
Round Rock:

  • Exit 256: FM 1431 (state-system)
  • Exit 254: Business Route IH-35 (state-system) and FM 3406 (state-system)
  • Exit 253A: “frontage road”
  • Exit 253: US 79 (state-system)
  • Exit 252B: RM 620 (state-system)
  • Exit 252A: McNeil Rd (local-system: Round Rock)
  • Exit 251: Business Route IH-35 (state-system)
  • Exit 250: FM 1325 (state-system)

Out of 7 exits with a road mentioned, only one is for a roadway which is locally funded; while 6 are for state-funded roadways.
Now, the exits between Round Rock and the city limits of Austin:

  • Exit 248: Grand Avenue Parkway (local-system: Travis County and Pflugerville)
  • Exit 247: FM 1825 (state-system)

Finally, the exits which are for roads which cross I-35 within the city limits of Austin:

  • Exit 246: Dessau Rd and Howard Lane (both local-system: Travis County and Austin)
  • Exit 245: FM 734 Parmer Lane (state-system) and Yager Lane (local-system: mostly Austin)
  • Exit 243: Braker Lane (local-system: Austin)
  • Exit 241: Rutherford Lane (local-system: Austin) and Rundberg Lane (local-system: Austin)
  • Exit 240AB: US 183 (state-system)
  • Exit 239: St Johns Ave (local-system: Austin)
  • Exit 238B: US 290 (state-system), FM 2222 (state-system)
  • Exit 238: 51st St. and others: all local-system
  • Exit 237: Airport Blvd (local-system west of I-35, state-system east of I-35 as Loop 111) and 38½ Street (local-system)

Out of 9 exits listed here, 8 are for roadways which are locally funded, and 4 are for roadways which receive state funding. (Obviously some exits are for both).
A reminder again: I used the part of Austin which has the MOST state-funded roadways in it (since I stopped short of the upper/lower-deck split two miles north of downtown where the arterials come fast and furious and NONE of them get state funding).
Resources used in this article:

The “HEB test”

What is the “HEB test”?

In central Austin, most people drive (or even, gasp, WALK!) from their home to the closest major grocery store (i.e. non-convenience store) without driving one inch on a roadway which is part of the state highway system because most major roads in central Austin are city-funded streetsnot so in Round Rock or other bedrom communities; the vast majority there would not only choose to but MUST head out to FM 620 or 1825 or 685 or even I-35 to shop for anything of consequence.

For instance, from my house north of UT, these major grocery stores are the ones we shop at more than once a year. We drive to EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM without using any part of the state highway system (yes, we shop at all of these, in order of frequency). (We sometimes walk to a couple of these, and have biked to one):

  • Central Market (38th/Lamar)
  • HEB at Hancock Center
  • Randall’s on 35th
  • Whole Foods (6th/Lamar)
  • Fresh Plus on Duval/43rd
  • Randall’s at Exposition across from Casis
  • Randall’s at Exposition/Lake Austin
  • Wheatsville Co-op (Guadalupe/30th)

Try the same test sometime in your neighborhood. When applied over a set of neighborhoods in a geographic area, I think the “HEB test” is a good indicator of how much (or how little) of your major street network is funded by the state. (Remember! Roads which don’t have a route shield on them, like FM 1325 or US 183, are not parts of the state highway system, and thus are ineligible for all state gas tax money and most federal gas tax money!)

This test is a useful proxy for the claim (made by me and others knowledgeable about urban planning) that gasoline taxes effectively subsidize the suburbs – the typical dweller of the suburbs spends a much higher percentage of his “drive” on roads which actually get money back from the gas tax than does the corresponding center-city resident.

Many More Major Roads In The Suburbs DO Get Gas Tax Money

Same exercise as the last entry of this type. I couldn’t get the scale exactly right – this section of Round Rock / Pflugerville is actually quite a bit larger than the corresponding section of Central Austin. (There’s a “zoomed in” PDF of central Austin which I used for the original source – if I zoom in with a similar scale to this section of Round Rock, the lines are so thick as to be unusable).

Arterials which are part of the state highway system and thus get gas tax money:

  • IH-35
  • Parmer Lane (FM 734)
  • RM 620
  • SH 45
  • FM 1825
  • US 79
  • FM 1431 (olive green in far upper left corner)
  • FM 685 (north-south road colored olive green lower right corner)

(I can’t list all the roads on here that aren’t part of the state highway system because I don’t know many of their names – some of them don’t even currently exist – they are planned to be built sometime in the future by Round Rock and Williamson County).
Note that a much higher proportion of major roads in the southern Round Rock area are maintained by the state. In fact, it is unlikely that a resident of a neighborhood in this area will be able to pass the “HEB test”.

What We Could Have Had

From Minneapolis, an update on their light-rail line that opened in 2004 and runs along and in city streets when necessary (goes directly into downtown rather than relying on shuttle buses to reach its primary destinations).
This line is similar in many ways to what a scaled-back version of the 2000 light rail plan could have brought to Austin. That’s not what we voted on in 2004 (many people are still confused on this topic – what we voted on was an el-cheapo commuter line which uses shuttle buses to get you to your office or UT, and precludes the development of true urban rail later on).

Note that running the line in the street and straight into downtown appears to be a horrible failure (NOTE: THIS IS SARCASM).

On with the story:

STRONG JANUARY RAIL RIDERSHIP;
MORE THAN A THIRD OF TRAIN RIDERS ARE NEW TO TRANSIT
Rail ridership for January – the first full month with Hiawatha Line
service from downtown Minneapolis to the airport and Mall of America –
was strong with customers boarding trains 441,846 times.
Nearly 40 percent of those riding the Hiawatha Line are first-time
transit users, according to a customer survey released this month. It is
the first onboard research Metro Transit has conducted specific to rail
service.
Of those new to transit, two-thirds said they would have otherwise
driven alone for their commute, illustrating the line’s initial impact
on reducing traffic congestion.
More than half (55 percent) of customers said they take the train for
their weekday commutes. Three in every five customers are riding during
rush hours. A third of customers ride on weekends as well as weekdays.
More than half of those surveyed (57 percent) ride the train five or
more times per week.
The main reasons for riding were cited as convenience (23 percent) and
enjoyment of the train (23 percent). Those who ride because they don’t
own a car, want to avoid driving or have environmental reasons accounted
for less than 4 percent of respondents. Those who chose the train over
bus service did so overwhelmingly (43 percent) due to convenient rail
schedules.
More customers (31 percent) reach a train station by bus than any other
way, while 26 percent walk and 24 percent use park-and-ride lots along
the line.
Thirty-seven percent pay their fares with cash, more than any other
payment method. Of those who used passes, 41 percent purchased them
through their employer, 39 percent of them using their company’s
payroll deduction program.
Demographic information provided by customers shows that the average
Hiawatha Line customer is 25-54 years old (69 percent), Caucasian (84
percent), female (52 percent), speaks English as a primary language (96
percent) and has a household income of more than $70,000 (34 percent).
The research was conducted Nov. 14 through Dec. 2 by Periscope. Later
this year, a more comprehensive study, encompassing both bus and rail,
will allow Metro Transit to compare the two modes and gauge customer
satisfaction with train service for the same time.

I’m a Goner

Today when I came home, my wife showed me the mail, and there was a letter from Councilman Slusher which noted that my term on the UTC has expired (it did on 1/1/05) and that he did not wish me to continue serving until I was replaced. No further information was given.

This is not a big surprise; although the timing is at least a small surprise. Many months ago when I first spoke on the commuter rail issue, one of my fellow commissioners told me that Councilman Slusher was apoplectic with rage over the idea that I’d say the things I was saying (and this was before I really got going; at this point all I had done was write one letter to the Chronicle). He supposedly said that he was mad enough to remove me from the Commission, but didn’t want to provide more attention for my supposed cause by doing so.

I was very shocked by this information at the time (and still am) – first of all, the idea that one couldn’t publically be against the commuter rail plan (but still be rabidly pro-rail and rabidly pro-transit) and still serve on the Commission is quite offensive to me even today. Second, the idea that a commissioner on the UTC could have a large enough public effect to be worth such spiteful comment as was supposedly given is just ludicrous – in other words, I can’t believe that I was ever big enough to be worth any bile from a City Council member at all.
At that time, I asked (quite nicely, I thought) for a meeting with him to discuss what he’d like me to do (implicitly offering to resign from the Commission if that’s what he wanted – to be honest, there’s little point in continuing to be on the Commission without support from your appointer). He never responded.

To this day, Councilmember Slusher has not spoken to me at all since we met a couple of years ago (when he indicated that he was fairly happy with the status of the UTC).

After the election, I missed the two remaining 2004 meetings of the UTC due to vacation and illness. The January 2005 meeting, which I had planned to attend, was canceled for lack of a quorum. The Februrary meeting is next Tuesday, and I had planned on attending.
I don’t know why the decision was made (suddenly) to remove me from the Commission. Councilmember Slusher is being term-limited out of office – elections are in May. I had assumed that the fact that he didn’t bother to replace me with another appointee meant that I would probably last until the new councilmember took office.

Anyways, for those reading this blog who knew I was on the UTC, that’s the full scoop as of now.
To my fellow commissioners – thanks for serving with me for all these years. Your dedication to improving the transportation situation for the public at large is an inspiration, even when I disagreed with you. I hope you’ll continue to do the great job you have been doing.

To city staff – please understand that I (and my fellow commissioners) appreciate the hard work you do even when we disagree. Thanks for all the night hours you had to put in to be at our meetings, and thanks for doing your part to make Austin better.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Got Another Free Night Per Month Coming Now

Letter in Chronicle

Letter from me in today’s Chronicle. Text at the end of this dispatch.
and today’s Statesman takes up the same subject (Transit Oriented Development – commonly abbreviated as TOD) again – using East Hillsboro Oregon (suburb of Portland) as their model. When are the cheerleaders going to get it – you get TOD IF AND ONLY IF your rail line has demonstrated a year or three of high ridership from people who CHOSE to ride rail, not from people who HAD to ride public transit?
For the I Told You So watch:

A fight is looming: The neighborhood plans that already exist for Plaza Saltillo and the areas around the Lamar and MLK stops don’t call for the kind of intense density city leaders want around rail stations.

As I pointed out several times during the run-up to the election, one of the many problems with the routing of this commuter rail line is that it runs through neighborhoods that don’t want any additional development, rather than down Lamar/Guadalupe where additional development is regarded as inevitable (although my own wildly irresponsible neighborhood does their best to counteract city-wide sanity on this regard).

(Chronicle Letter):

Cold Water on TOD
Dear Editor,
I hate to throw cold water on the frenzy over TOD (transit-oriented development) [“Here Comes the Train,” News, Jan. 28], but it’s worth remembering that no commuter rail start in the U.S. in recent memory has generated any transit-oriented development worth noting. In fact, all of the TOD that has occurred in the U.S. in most of our lifetimes has been around light rail starts which had to first demonstrate a high level of ridership from new transit customers (i.e., not just those who used to take the bus, but new customers to transit).

This is how Dallas, Denver, Portland, Salt Lake, and Minneapolis have gotten and are continuing to get great new urban buildings around their light-rail lines.

The key here is that thanks to Mike Krusee and naive pro-transit people in Austin, we’re not getting a rail line like those cities got (which goes where people actually want to go from day one); we’re getting one like South Florida got (which requires shuttle buses to get anywhere worth going). South Florida’s commuter line has yet (after 15 years) to generate one lousy square-foot of TOD.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission